It’s been more than a few days since the UP Fighting Maroons ended what was supposed to be a stellar UAAP Season 82 by falling in the stepladder playoffs to eventual finalist UST. As both a basketball fan and UP fan, it really took some time to fathom the reality that they were not making it to the finals after shocking the world back in 2018.
Almost everyone expected UP to make AT LEAST a comeback into the championship round this time. With huge names coming in to fill the void for graduated veterans s Gelo Vito, Diego Dario, Jarrell Lim, and the legendary Paul Desiderio, a lot of people actually put the Maroons right up there in the conversation against the dynasty-in-the-making Ateneo Blue Eagles.
But as they say, basketball is a team sport. Since the beginning of time, it will always be about teams who know how to gel together properly, setting egos aside and sacrificing their individual talents for the better goal of the team – which is always the championship. This season’s UP Men’s Basketball Team – no matter how much of a brotherhood they say they’ve become or how close they have developed over the past year – was simply a group that stepped back in terms of being a T-E-A-M.
The UAAP Season 81 version of the UP Fighting Maroons set out a modest goal of ending the school’s 21-year Final Four drought, quite a contrast to this year’s one that set its sights on winning the first title since 1986.
At the end of Round 1 last year, the Maroons sported a 3-4 win-loss record and were outside of the top 4. Things were not going as they hoped to be, with losses against teams people considered them to win easily over such as FEU, Adamson, and UST.
But come the 2nd Round, they actually learned to get their act together – big thanks to that players-only meeting they decided to hold.
Led by the seniors Desiderio, Vito, Dario, and Lim, they aired out their issues in front of and it resulted in their best finish in more than three decades. It’s not every day, or every collegiate team for that matter, that you see seniors like these guys – players who should be getting the most of the playing time with the year being their final act in collegiate basketball – actually agree to take a step back, and hand the reigns to the younger, newer counterparts of the team.
It’s not that they were not as talented as the new guys – for sure, they can hold the fort against the new faces then like Akhuetie, and the GDL brothers. Rather, they just all learned to sacrifice their numbers and exposure to propel Bo Perasol’s squad forward.
This was where Desiderio’s famous #16Strong was born.
In Round 2 alone, they blew out NU, UST, and DLSU on the way to booking that Final Four ticket.
It was also a huge benefit that they began their offseason training earlier than usual after coming up short in Season 80. Their exposure to European basketball with a two-week excursion to Novi Sad, Serbia also helped them significantly. Then-strength and conditioning coach Manu Hoque also played a role in shaping the boys quickly despite being given just two months prior to the beginning of the UAAP.
Unlike the Season 81 team, however, this year’s Fighting Maroons were thrown into the fire right from the very start.
Injuries hindered Juan GDL and Akhuetie at the start of 2019, and it didn’t help that new faces Ricci Rivero and Kobe Paras also went down with health issues as they began their buildup in the summer leagues. Academics also prevented the boys from being as complete as they can be in all their out of town and country trips.
It wasn’t only until July 2019 – a few weeks before Season 82 tipped off – that they were finally complete. But with how their season panned out, it appears as if the trips to Taiwan (where they won the BLIA Cup) and Japan may have been a little too late.
Season 81’s Maroons team – unlike this year – actually blew out UAAP teams. It may not have been as dominant as how Ateneo does it this Season 82 from the start, but it nonetheless proved how cohesive and deadly they can be when they get their act together.
Juan Gomez De Liaño served as master ballhandler and Mr. Ball screen, zigging and zagging through defenses to either score or kick it out to his open teammates for the long bombs. Akhuetie manned the paint well, grabbing down almost 20 boards a game and serving as the last anchor on D when offenses ran past their perimeter defense. At times you could look at Juan as young Kobe or Harden, with Bright serving as his Shaq or Dwight.
But the most beautiful part of that team had to be the way they shared that basketball. The Maroons recorded multiple games with 20 assists or higher, even recording a UAAP season-high 32 in one match. Clearly that meeting set the tone for this whole team, as they never really cared who scored or got the minutes on the floor.
Season 82 however, was filled with a lot of what-ifs and what-could-have-been.
From the first game to the sixteenth, it’s quite hard to find how much of an improvement this team actually had.
For all of that talent that was actually added to the experience from last year, it’s a no-brainer that people thought of this team winning convincingly against their opponents. But lo and behold, they failed to actually do that in every single one of the games this year.
Their biggest margin of victory was 6 points, one in the first game of the year, a 61- over FEU and another in their fifth, a 62-56 win over UE.
It’s baffling how they could not even put away teams that were in the bottom of the standings, with their two wins over NU totaling just four points, wins over Adamson just five points, and the two nail-biting games against DLSU just four points. Remember that Juan GDL steal and pull-up three for the win?
Against the Final Four teams, however, they went a combined 1-5 in the elimination round. Add to that their average margin of victory of just 3.1 points against the non-Final Four teams, and that in itself was already a bad sign heading into the playoffs.
Throughout the whole season, it seemed as if this team just continued to search for answers game in, game out. It looked like they were trying to get a feel for each other from game #1 of the season all the way to the last one. Championship squads don’t do that during the season. All of them know it should be done PRIOR.
There’s a saying that goes: Well done is better than well said.
Sad to say, this year’s Maroons team could not put to action what they often put into words. For as much sacrifice and selflessness they preached since the beginning of 2019 all the way to their final game against UST, it just never really materialized within the four corners of the basketball floor.
If in some distant place in basketball heaven these two Maroon squads actually got to go up against each other, the Season 81 iteration might actually prove to be the better team in a knockout match or 3-game series.
Why? Simply because each player on that team knew their given roles, and actually did not care as to who got the ball, the stats, or the fame.
That kind of team goes a long, long way. Pretty much like how they did last year.